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Rebuilding after Sandy

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Richard Cherry, founder and president of the Community Environmental Center

Richard Cherry, the founder and president of the Community Environmental Center, is the author of the following op-ed about rebuilding after Sandy with energy efficiency, re-use and recycling in mind. Mr. Cherry’s op-ed was first published in Crain’s New York Business on January 25, 2013.

Hurricane Sandy brought one good result amid all its destruction: The words “climate change” came back into the political dialogue.

I am concerned, though, that the responses to Sandy have focused more on building dikes to deal with future storms than on solutions that will help us diminish the chances of another Sandy. I do not quarrel with studying appropriate flood barriers and moving building mechanicals to higher ground. But I do worry that, as we rebuild, we are missing many opportunities to mitigate the climate change that contributed to this disaster in the first place. If we rebuild in such a way that greenhouse gases continue to waft out of our homes and businesses into the air, we will never be able to construct enough dikes to prevent catastrophic changes to the earth as we know it today.

As FEMA, Rapid Repairs and insurance payouts replace thousands of heating systems, where are the regulations, or at least the effort, to install high-efficiency heating systems? When I recently had the opportunity to discuss this issue with New York City administrators, the answer was, “We haven’t the time to figure this out. We need to move as quickly as possible.” Contractors are being told to install whatever materials and equipment they can get their hands on.

Thousands of acres of insulation are being replaced. Where is the effort to see that it is done with energy efficiency in mind? Study after study have shown that fiberglass sheets do not do as good a job of insulating as cellulose or foam, not to mention that the manufacturing of fiberglass creates high emissions of greenhouse gases. And as we have learned, mold loves to grow in fiberglass batts when they get wet.

Worst of all, fiberglass has been considered potentially carcinogenic by the federal government since 1994. Perhaps the federal government is not yet prepared to ban its use, as it should, but those in charge of post-Sandy rebuilding should not let contractors and homeowners install fiberglass without alerting them to its potential harm or informing them that there are safer, more efficient insulation products out there.

Many of the building materials damaged by Sandy are not reusable. But many are. There are thousands of boards of reusable lumber just being trashed as the homes and buildings damaged in Sandy’s wake are demolished. Slowing down even a little to salvage lumber, cabinets and plumbing fixtures that can be reused could prevent thousands of tons of greenhouse gases. When we reuse, we reduce emissions from our dumps and from the manufacturing of replacement materials. With salvaging outlets such as the not-for-profit Build It Green!NYC available to the city, why don’t we just take a little more care when we bulldoze homes destroyed by Sandy? (Full disclosure: My organization is Build It Green’s parent.)

I commend our great city for the creativity and quick organization it has shown in responding to Sandy. But speed should not be the only consideration. We will be missing a great opportunity to deal with the causes of our climate crisis if, as part of our planning, we do not factor in how best to mitigate greenhouse gases when we rebuild. There is too much at stake to let this opportunity go by. Reducing emissions by rebuilding correctly needs to be as essential a goal as preventing future floods.

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